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Three Iraqi Candidates Killed

Gunmen shot and killed three candidates running in Iraq's Jan. 30 elections, officials said Tuesday, as a bomb attack killed two people outside the offices of a leading Shiite political party.

With insurgents trying to ruin the election, officials announced that Iraq will seal its borders, extend a curfew and restrict movement to protect voters during the balloting. President Bush spoke Tuesday morning with Iraqi interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi (search), the latest in a series of conversations between the two leaders on Iraq's efforts to ensure maximum participation in the election.

Two of the slain candidates belonged to Allawi's political coalition, the Iraqi National Accord, a member of the group said.

Alaa Hamid, who was running for the 275-member National Assembly, was shot dead Monday in the southern port city of Basra in front of his family, the official said on condition of anonymity. Hamid was also the deputy chairman of the Iraqi Olympic Committee in Basra.

Riad Radi, who was running in the local race for Basra's provincial council on a list supported by Allawi's INC, was killed Sunday when masked gunmen fired on his car as he was driving with his family, the official said.

Basra, a predominantly Shiite Muslim city, has been relatively calm in recent weeks, though insurgents fired four mortar rounds Sunday at schools slated to serve as polling centers.

In Baghdad on Monday, masked gunmen shot dead another candidate, Shaker Jabbar Sahla, a Shiite Muslim who was running in the National Assembly election for the Constitutional Monarchy Movement. The party is headed by Sharif Ali bin Hussein, a cousin of Iraq's last king.

Sunni Muslim militants, who make up the bulk of Iraq's insurgency, are increasingly honing in on Shiites in their effort to ruin the election that is widely expected to propel their religious rivals to a position of dominance. Many Sunnis argue that security is precarious and the election should not take place under foreign occupation.

Tuesday's car bombing in Baghdad gouged a crater in the pavement, left several vehicles in flames and spread shredded debris on the street outside the offices of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (search), a main contender in the election. The Shiite party, known as SCIRI, has close ties to Iran and is strongly opposed by Sunni Muslim militants.

The assailant told guards at a checkpoint leading to the party's office that he was part of SCIRI's security staff, and he detonated his bomb-laden car at the guard post when he was not allowed to enter.

Iraqi police officials reported the bomber and two others were dead and nine people were injured, including three police.

"SCIRI will not be frightened by such an act," party spokesman Ridha Jawad said. "SCIRI will continue the march toward building Iraq, establishing justice and holding the elections."

The Independent Electoral Commission announced that the country's international borders would be closed from Jan. 29 until Jan. 31, except for Muslim pilgrims returning from the hajj in Saudi Arabia.

Iraqis also will be barred from traveling between provinces and a nighttime curfew will be imposed during the same period, according to a statement from the commission's Farid Ayar.

Such measures had been expected because of the grave security threat. U.S. and Iraqi authorities are hoping to encourage a substantial turnout but fear that if most Sunnis stay away from the polls, the legitimacy of the new government will be in doubt.

Iraq's interior minister warned that if the country's Sunni Arab minority bows to rebel threats and stays away from the polls, the nation could descend into civil war.

Falah Hassan al-Naqib, a Sunni, told reporters he expects Sunni insurgents to escalate attacks before the election, especially in the Baghdad area.

"If any group does not participate in the elections, it will constitute treason," al-Naqib said, adding that "boycotting the elections will not produce a National Assembly that represents the Iraqi people" but will cause "a civil war that will divide the country."

Allawi said he will boost the country's armed forces with 70,000 more troops in an effort to take over more security tasks from U.S.-led forces. He said the forces would be "equipped with the most advanced weapons."

Meanwhile, a Catholic archbishop kidnapped by gunmen in the northern city of Mosul (search) was released Tuesday, a day after his abduction. The Vatican had called his abduction a "terrorist act."

A video surfaced Tuesday showing eight Chinese construction workers held hostage by gunmen claiming the men are employed by a company working with U.S. troops, in the latest abduction of foreigners in Iraq. China's Foreign Ministry said it was "taking all measures to rescue the hostages," the official Xinhua News Agency said.

The men from China's southern Fujian province went missing last week while traveling to Jordan, Xinhua said.

Elsewhere, a third American died in fighting in Iraq's troubled Anbar province (search), west of Baghdad, the military said Tuesday. Two others assigned to the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force (search) also were killed in action there Monday.

The military gave no other details and it was unclear whether the three troops were killed in a suicide car bombing in the western city of Ramadi that U.S. officials said resulted in American casualties.